Avatar: The Last Airbender: A Feminist Work of American Animation

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I call myself a feminist and I am a nerd. I’ve read a lot of feminist text over the course of my undergraduate career and to be honest I find the texts boring, as there are examples of media more comprehensive and interesting. As an avid media consumer that I view products from an intersectional feminist standpoint and as I have gotten deeper into my studies I have learned more about how to be more critical about the media I consume. It’s a blessing and a curse as the feminist ideology is becoming more accessible via the internet. What I define as feminist media should work against cissexism, capitalism, and the patriarchy.

Millennials globally engage in media endlessly, however, I believe media can introduce the feminist theory and a good example which comes to mind is the hit series Avatar the Last Airbender. The Nickelodeon show created by Michael Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko in 2005 is still incredibly popular. The show is inspired by the aesthetics of anime, Eastern philosophy, and the Asian diaspora. Martino and Konietzko have cited the work of anime heavyweights Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe as the large influence. Many argue that it’s not anime, but will acknowledge it as a product of both Western influence and Eastern influence.

What made Avatar the Last Airbender so special was that it was full of characters of colour in a mostly white genre. Though the creators were white, the show was an homage to several Asian and indigenous cultures and the characters, choreography, and narratives were inspired real life places and languages. This was a first for an American show which tends to create caricatures of Asian identities. It is noted that the creators were interested in creating the world with various ethnicities and cultures with varying phenotypes. The creators interwove Asian mythology into a hero’s journey which lasted a span over a span of 56 episodes divvied into 3 seasons called books.

The world of Avatar is much like many other fantasy stories, where humans inhabit the world with varied climates and accompanying creatures. The story mostly follows Aang, an orphaned boy trapped in an ice globe stumbled upon by two teenaged siblings, Katara and Sokka. We later learn that Katara and Sokka are from the southern water tribe, the two are brown skinned and dressed in attire that mimics indigenous culture seen in North West America. Aang is the last of the air nomads and was chosen to be the avatar. The avatar is a human that can control or “bend” all four elements of the natural word. This process is chosen through reincarnation and selects someone different of the four nations. The four nations consist of the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads. Avatar is definitely a piece of feminist work and I am now realizing that as an academic that Avatar touches on heavy topics for a show geared for children. The show deals with imperialist/colonial forces, women having agency/autonomy, and also mental illness is depicted.

Avatar the Last Airbender was welcomed in my home one summer morning, before high school. I initially didn’t like the storyline but that opinion soon changed as the characters got deeper. The main characters or “gaang” as the fandom calls them consit of Sokka, Katara, Toph, Suki, and Zuko. All who change the “gaang” at different moments in the series. Each is vital to the team and unique in their own way. All connected to the fact that they were brought together by the havoc caused by the fire nation. For those whose don’t know what imperialism is. Imperialism is the action that involves an empire or kingdom extending its power by the conquering of territories. The fire nation is an imperial force. A kingdom that is home to many firebenders, it’s a nation ruled by the fire lord. The Fire Nation is known for their military often enacting state sanctioned violence on territories they conquered, many people are fearful of the Fire Nation. Including our heroes, Katara and Sokka who lost their mother during a fire nation raid.

Throughout the series, we encounter a lot of secondary characters that also hold resentment of the Fire Nation’s rule. However ATLA was a series interested in developing complex relationships, we even saw what life was like being under the rule of empire as seen through the perspective of Zuko and Azula. Two children caught in the reigns of fire, and a dictator for a father who wreaked havoc literally and figuratively. Aang, our naive protagonist even struggles with the reality of genocide, being the last of the air nomads who were wiped out by the fire nation’s 100-year world. Katara and Sokka’s people are displaced by the Fire nation causing them to immigrate. There a myriad of scenes with policing, arrests, and violence enacted by the fire nation We also encounter many secondary characters that have covert feelings about the fire nation who do not voice their opinions so they are not punished or jailed. You see Fire Nation propaganda, militarization, and industrialization of the four nations under the siege of the Fire nation. The world of Avatar is like many nations in the global south looking to assert themselves independent of their colonizer but the web of war and corrupt politics complicates that. In Avatar several political systems are shown, reflective of the history of many Asian empires.

Another highlight for Avatar the last Airbender were the female characters. The show all provided variations of female characters where other animated series failed. Many of the girls that appear in the series are skilled in hand to hand combat, some weapons, or a particular elemental bending style. The girls and women of ATLA were complex, more than love interests or tropes. You had girls with disabilities seen with Toph Beifong, an earth bender seeking to escape the sheltered yet patronizing lifestyle of the Earth Kingdom. Katara a young woman seeking a water bender master across the nations greeted with disdain.

Azula was one of the main antagonist of the series, a young woman bound between trying to be a military strategist and leaving in her brother’s shadow. Azula was cunning, albeit manipulative but a terrifying 12-year-old girl whose quest to illicit power caused her demise. There’s a myriad of women: mothers, warriors, healers; the women of ATLA fulfill various archetypes without being static. We see this with Suki, a young woman who’s the leader of the all-female group Kyoshi Warriors. Most American animation series would write her character as a hard ass, Avatar allowed Suki to be complex. Letting her have a love interest while not sacrificing her dreams and values. Later in the series, Suki leads a prison break out. There are also depictions of female friendships as positive and negative. In American cartoons, female characters are often dichotomized as tomboys or princess types. ATLA presented women who had varying levels of emotional challenges and autonomy. They presented high points and low points making believable characters.

Avatar the last Airbender also pushed the idea that ability is displayed in a variety of ways. There are characters with both visible and invisible abilities. The first example I am referencing is Toph, the resident Earth Bender of the main group characters. She is blind, often people underestimate her abilities. Coupled with her gender and royal lineage she over exceeds the limitations others perceive of her. The creators were conscientious of making a character who’s disabled but did not once make that a hindrance. Throughout the show, we learn about how Toph has learned how to navigate the world. Disabilities have shown themselves in several characters no matter what moral alignment.

Azula suffers from a mental illness. She has broken down towards the series end, due to not living up to impossible standards of her dictator of a father and Azula was neglected alongside Zuko. Ozai didn’t love either of his children but rather viewed them extensions of himself. Zuko received his noticeable scar inflicted in the rage of his father, after a disagreement. It is noticeable he is treated by others who distance themselves. Zuko is a character dealing the after effects of a traumatic childhood, he has been seen flinching when touched. Other secondary characters have disabilities. Teo who navigated the world using a wheelchair, Teo is paraplegic. In his brief appearances, he created objects including a glider that was an extension of his wheelchair. As you can see unlike other animated series that solely make their characters with disabilities as one dimensional, ATLA tried to make them complex with agency.

In conclusion, while there is no perfect animated series, media is a catalyst no matter whether that is acknowledged or not ATLA is a great example that strives to work towards feminist principles. I understand that not everyone is interested in feminist text or analyzing their favorite series. ATLA is one of my childhood favorites that I’ve cherished but as an adult, I now recognize it’s feminist significance. With it’s affirming messages of female empowerment, the struggles of diasporic people, and normalizing disability in cartoon shows. There will never be a show quite as impactful as ATLA, however, there have been many fan made series that try to emulate it. I think many content creators have been interested in making more politically engaged work with ATLA as a reference.

Author: Brittney Maddox

Editor: Han Angus

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